Eu was born March 29, 1922, in the back of a laundry in the Stanislaus County town of Oakdale, northeast of Modesto. Eu -- originally March Kong -- was the youngest of four children born to Yuen Kong and Shiu Shee.
Her parents moved the family to Richmond, where they established another hand laundry. Eu recalled the family continued to live behind the laundry and that the family's relative poverty gave her "a very strong drive to succeed and also to do some good and help others who may find
themselves in the same situation that I found myself in."
"That's not to say that my childhood was unhappy," she told an oral history interviewer in the 1970s. "It was was just that I had wished that the circumstances were different so that my parents would have a better life than to have to work seven days a week, morning, noon, and night, washing and ironing clothes."
Eu attended attended elementary and high school in Richmond, where she earned nearly straight A's, then moved with her family to Gilroy. She attended Salinas Junior College for a year before going on to UC Berkeley, where in 1943 she earned a bachelor's of science degree in dentistry. She went on to earn a master's degree in education from Mills College and a doctorate in education from Stanford.
Two of her three siblings also went on to graduate from college -- one with a chemistry degree, another with a degree in pharmacy.
Eu, who married a fellow dentistry student and was known at the start of her political career as March K. Fong, won three terms on the Alameda County Board of Education before running for the Assembly in 1966. In a 1978 oral history interview with UC Berkeley, she recalled that Nicholas Petris, a state senator and veteran of East Bay Democratic politics, endorsed someone else in the party primary:
"When you’re pressed to endorse candidates, sometimes you ultimately make a decision as to the one that?s going to win, more than the person you prefer. Maybe he just felt that it couldn’t happen that I would win: There was only one woman in the legislature; women just did not get elected. And a Chinese woman at that.”
Eu won the primary without Petris' endorsement, then went on to win the first of her four Assembly terms. She was only the second woman elected to the Legislature and also the state's first Asian-American lawmaker.
Eu, by this time divorced and remarried to businessman Henry Eu, was elected secretary of state in 1974, the first woman elected to the office and the first Chinese-American to hold a constitutional office in California. Among the accomplishments she later cited were introduction of mail-in voter registration, internet reporting of election results and consolidation of the secretary of state's divisions in one complex in Sacramento. She won election a record five times before resigning when President Bill Clinton named her ambassador to the Pacific nation of Micronesia.
She ran again for secretary of state in 2002, but lost in the Democratic primary to San Franciscan Kevin Shelley. Eu's adopted son, Matt Fong, was elected state treasurer in 1994. Fong, a Republican, lost his 1998 bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. He died in 2011.
In a statement, Gov. Jerry Brown called March Fong Eu "a pioneering woman who helped open doors to public service for more women and Asian Americans. On behalf of all Californians, Anne and I express our deep condolences to March’s family.”
Secretary of State Alex Padilla called Eu "a true trailblazer ... a champion of transparency and the ballot box." Padilla's office said Saturday that the agency's headquarters in Sacramento will be renamed for Eu.
In a 1973 speech titled "The Self-Sufficient Woman," then-Assemblymember Eu reflected on her place in the Legislature and what the future might hold for women in politics and society. A brief excerpt:
Maybe if some men had to bear and rear unwanted babies themselves, they would understand better our resentment of laws relating to our reproductive systems. Maybe if some men let their wives involuntarily control their income, they would understand better our resentment of present discriminatory statutes directed toward women as a class. And maybe if some men were raped, and, in pursuit of justice, they found that they had to reveal humiliating information about their past lives -- maybe then they would understand the anger of women who feel they are doubly wronged by rapists and the laws concerning rape.
I guess what I am saying is that I believe it is about time that some men need to do some honest rethinking about their perspective and prejudices.
Eu is survived by her daughter Suyin Stein of Sebastopol (husband Jim), four grandchildren (Alaric and Melody Stein and Jade Fong and Matthew Fong, Jr.) as well as numerous nieces and nephews. Her late son, Matthew “Kip” Fong was a former State Treasurer.